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Legal Web Site Suggests That Federal Court Clerks Are Not Capable Of Answering The Office Telephone

Posted on the 13 September 2013 by Rogershuler @RogerShuler

Legal Web Site Suggests That Federal Court Clerks Are Not Capable Of Answering The Office Telephone

Hugo Black Courthouse

A law-related Web site suggests that federal court clerks should not be allowed to answer office telephones, in the wake of our reporting on a clerk in the Northern District of Alabama.

As the great columnist Dave Barry often has said, "I am not making this up."

Judicial Clerk Review (JCR) bills itself as "an oasis for law students and lawyers who are applying for judicial clerkships."  JCR then describes its mission: "We provide tailored support to our clients, removing uncertainty in the application process and ensuring they put their best foot forward as they apply for what we consider to be THE BEST law jobs."  

In furtherance of that goal, JCR's Web site includes a blog, which picked up on our recent reports about David Waters Jr., who clerks for U.S. Magistrate T. Michael Putnam at the Hugo Black Courthouse here in Birmingham. We have shown in a series of posts that Waters and Putnam have a clear conflict in my wife's pending employment case against Infinity Insurance, Waters showed supreme arrogance in hanging up on me once, Waters showed even more rudeness when hanging up on me a second time, and I had the pleasure of telling him off before the whole thing was over.

How did JCR describe the action? Let's take a look, from a post titled "Legal Schnauzer Sniffs Out Law Clerk":

Blogger and journalist Legal Schnauzer (aka Roger Shuler) is on a tear against U.S. Magistrate Judge T. Michael Putnam and Judge Putnam’s law clerk, David Waters, Jr. Legal Schnauzer has accused Putnam of presiding over his wife’s employment discrimination case despite an existing conflict of interest. According to Legal Schnauzer, at the heart of that conflict is the law clerk, whose dad is a partner in the law firm that represents the defendant employer in Legal Schnauzer’s wife’s lawsuit.
Schnauzer called chambers, apparently to inquire about this potential conflict, and got Waters on the phone. Twice. Both times, Waters hung up on Schnauzer, who recorded their second exchange. Legal Schnauzer has taken aim at Waters, accusing Waters of residing comfortably within the one percent and claiming to target Waters’s “finely manicured face” with a verbal assault over the phone. It’s personal, folks.

I kind of like it at this point, although I disagree about it being personal, from my standpoint. I don't have anything personally against David Waters Jr.; my ire comes from the fact that Waters is part of a broken system, and he seems to have an indifferent attitude about the corruption that I know is rampant in the Hugo Black Courthouse where he works.

My jaw dropped when JCR addressed the larger issues that my posts present. I thought their first item was interesting, the second one was absolutely on target, but the third one . . . well, it was a stunner. You can read here for yourselves:

What might be the bigger lessons here? (1) Had the law clerk simply gone about his business and, instead of clerking, entered the relative anonymity of law firm associate-dom after law school, he likely would have avoided this attention. I guarantee the clerkship experience is worth it. (2) If clerkships were truly open to a diversity of perspectives, backgrounds, and experiences, the thread of elitism that undergirds Legal Schnauzer’s accusations would not have much traction. (3) Maybe law clerks shouldn’t be permitted to answer the phone in chambers. Many judges and their staff shield the law clerks from public interaction on behalf of chambers. Not just for the good of the law clerk but to save chambers any embarrassment as well.

Now, I admire JCR for its statement in No. 2, and it's a rare dash of candor from someone in the legal profession: "If clerkships were truly open to a diversity of perspectives, backgrounds, and experiences, the thread of elitism that undergirds Legal Schnauzer’s accusations would not have much traction."

JCR seems to be admitting that nepotism, cronyism, and elitism is at the heart of the clerk selection process. In fact, the blog suggests the process is closed off to many capable candidates.

But JCR truly baffles me when it hints that maybe law clerks aren't capable of answering the phone and dealing with the public. The ones who get coveted clerkships are supposed to be "the best and brightest" of the young legal crop? Lord, have mercy.

JCR seems to ignore the real issue at the heart of my communications with David Waters Jr. If my wife's case were being handled according to the law, I never would have contacted him. If Judge Putnam had recused himself from the outset, as the law requires, David Waters and I never would have crossed paths.

Waters didn't come off sounding bad in my interview because he's a blockhead. It's just that he was put on the spot, facing honest and tough questions for which he had no answer. 

If Putnam had been following the law, I wouldn't have called in the first place. But assuming I had called anyway, Waters could have calmly explained the applicable law, and I probably would have understood and gone on about my business.

The only honest answer Waters could have given me on this occasion was: "Look, you know your wife is being cheated, I know your wife is being cheated, but I'm just Judge Putnam's law clerk and I can't do anything about it."

Knowing such an answer would have cost him a job, Waters chose to stumble and fumble around, coming across as an arrogant jackass who really doesn't care whether the public receives justice or not.

David Waters Jr. might not be that kind of shallow person. But the more deeply entrenched he becomes in a broken system, the more often he's going to sound like a shallow person.

That's the real lesson here: Corrupt judges make life difficult for everyone around them--litigants, lawyers, even law clerks who make the mistake of answering the phone.

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